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Lebanon hangs in the balance

The Baltimore Sun

After a week of whirlwind travel throughout the Middle East, President Bush returns to the U.S. today hoping that his trip has secured the support of Persian Gulf states in America's drive to counter Iran's regional ambitions. But while Mr. Bush worked to draft Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into a reinvigorated containment strategy for Iran, and while U.S. and Iranian warships played chicken in the Strait of Hormuz, another conflict between Washington and Tehran was quietly unfolding in Lebanon.

There, a stalemate between the pro-Western government of Fouad Siniora and the Hezbollah-led, Iran- and Syria-backed opposition threatens to throw the country into turmoil. Yesterday's deadly explosion targeting a U.S. Embassy vehicle in Beirut was just the latest reminder of how volatile the situation there is.

The implications for the U.S. of the political power play in Lebanon are huge. Hezbollah's push to undermine Lebanon's U.S.-supported government has the group's Iranian and Syrian backers poised to expand their influence westward and to turn Lebanon into another major regional battlefield in the cold war between Washington and the Tehran/Damascus axis. Unfortunately, there may be little that Mr. Bush can do to stabilize Lebanon. He is determined not to negotiate, and dialogue with the likes of Syrian President Bashar Assad is not without risks. Sustained diplomatic isolation coordinated by the U.S. and France may stand the best chance of preventing Syria from meddling further in Lebanese affairs.

As things stand, it does not appear that any resolution to the crisis is on the horizon. After the departure from power in late November of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, the Hezbollah-led opposition, known as the March 8 Alliance, has consistently blocked the election of his successor, demanding a veto-yielding vote in parliament before it agrees to allow a president to be selected. Realizing that granting the opposition this veto power would give Syria and Iran a greater voice in the decisions of the Lebanese government, the pro-Western majority in power has refused to relent. Thus, Lebanon remains without a president and is left in an unstable and dangerous vacuum.

As a result, Lebanon - hailed by the Bush administration as a model democracy in the Middle East after popular protests in 2005 forced out Syrian troops and allowed for parliamentary elections free of foreign interference - stands at risk of political meltdown. Its slide into chaos would be a major blow to the U.S. push to democratize the region.

On the other hand, Iran and Syria stand to gain by shaking up the pro-Western ruling coalition in Lebanon. By giving Hezbollah a greater say in Lebanese government decision-making, Iran would win a powerful partner in furthering Shiite interests in the Arab world and a guaranteed base from which to launch possible further attacks on Israel.

As for Syria, many speculate that with veto power, the March 8 Alliance would work to block the U.N. investigation into Syria's alleged role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister and staunch Syria critic Rafik Hariri. Worse, some worry that emboldening the pro-Damascus voice in the Lebanese government could be the prelude to Syrian attempts to return to its erstwhile protectorate.

With no resolution in sight, some fear that tension between the two factions could break out into civil strife. Although it is unlikely that either side will seek all-out confrontation, it is always possible that an outbreak of violence on the street could erupt into widespread conflict in a country divided firmly along political and sectarian lines - and where memories of the bloody 1975-1990 civil war are fresh.

Continued pressure thus needs to be applied to the regional powers to encourage a peaceful resolution to the crisis and to prevent a takeover by forces hostile to Lebanon's sovereignty. Both the U.S. and France have rightly chosen to pursue a policy of diplomatic isolation with Damascus until progress is made toward a resolution. While engagement with Syria may be crucial for long-term plans for peace in the region, any dialogue with Damascus must not sacrifice Lebanon up to the regional powers eager to gain a stronger foothold in the small Arab country.

The return of Arab League chief Amr Moussa to Beirut may provide the best hope for fruitful dialogue between the two sides through a renewal of the league's Lebanon initiative. But Lebanon may remain without a president for a long time to come. Given the implications for peace and stability in the region, this is not the news Mr. Bush hoped to bring home from the Middle East.

James Martin is a writer based in England and the Middle East and a Paul Mellon fellow at Cambridge University. His e-mail is jrm86@cam.ac.uk.

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